The Importance of Spells

burning-bookI was riffing a bit on Twitter, and realized I had some stuff about spells I had to unpack.  This will probably take two posts, so  I want to open with the premise – spells are the most important part of D&D.

This is a rough assertion to make because D&D is so big and complicated that any assertion about one thing being the most important is certain to invite skepticism. And I’m cool with that – I don’t expect to persuade anyone who feels differently, but I do hope that I can help unpack a little bit of how I’m thinking about spells to help make some future thoughts make some more sense.

So let’s start with the basics – have you ever made your own D&D clone? I certainly have. It seems like a pretty simple task because at it’s heart, D&D is not that complicated in any of its many guises. It is well elaborated to cover a deep bench of edge cases, but the underlying rules have never been hard to wrap your head around.[1] That has meant that it has always seemed that they are easy to improve, which has lead to a vast universe of house rules and edition progression.

But an interesting thing happens when you start mucking around. Adding skills, tweaking classes, modifying combat – all of those things flow rather smoothly. But at some point you run up against the spell list (really any time from AD&D forward), and the rules change. The problem is that the spells are conceptually straightforward – they have levels and effects and they’re quite tidy. But the sheer volume of them is daunting. To discard the existing spell list in favor of something else seems insanely wasteful, especially since it’s so easy to just modify it – change some levels, add or subtract spells. The D&D spells are that load bearing wall that you can’t tear down, so you just work around it.

And that’s just as well, because if you rip them out, replacing them is hard. Almost every other fantasy game out there that has tried ends up burning a lot of page count for something largely forgettable. There have been exceptions[2] but they are greatly outnumbered by the number of games with “Energy Bolt” and “Persuade” spells that look strangely familiar.

Note, many of these games with boring spells have fascinating magic. Games like Rifts or (choose your favorite) offer pictures of magic that are exciting and compelling. Great, grabby stuff. To this day, the Ley Line Walker from Rifts is one of my favorite magical concepts. But these excellent wrappers were largely let down by the turd of a spell list they contained.

And that leads to real culmination of this – the D&D spell list is what makes D&D feel like D&D. Some of this is all about mechanics and familiar names, but there’s more to it than that. D&D has only the setting implied by its rules. Some of that setting is shaped by things like classes and equipment lists, but nothing defines the setting like the spells.

Not because of the bits of lore among them – Bigby just doesn’t matter that much – but because every single spell is a declaration that in this setting, this thing is possible. It is a thing that happens. That’s bold. And with the sheer volume of information in the spell list, it’s also very broad.

And that’s actually pretty great, because the spell is wonderfully well designed. Long before anyone had ever heard of “moves”, spells were discrete units of fiction and mechanics that established tone and could be strongly re-used. What’s more, they were built with the RPG equivalent of a handle, that allowed them to be easily slotted into various places.

Consider that a spell had an effect, but it also had a wrapper, and the wrapper contained information like who could cast it, when and how. Spell memorization is wrapper. Spell swapping is wrapper. Components are wrapper. And this is critical because the wrapper could be fiddled with infinitely without messing up the effect. The result is that spells could be used as a language of effects. Want to model an interesting trap? it explodes like a fireball. Want to give a monster cool powers? Voila, spell like abilities!

This is pretty damn robust, especially when the spells are cool. And as a result, it seems only natural that spells have become more and more central to what D&D is. It might have started as a fighting game with some magic, but there is a really strong case to be made that it has become something closer to a magic game with some fighting.

And that’s absolutely not a bad thing. But it is an interesting thing, and it’s had some implications. Implications that I’ll dig into in the next post.

  1. It could be argued that earlier editions seem more complicated because the rules were not necessarily well unified, and as a result the edge cases required a bit more work to keep track of, as they were often one-offs, but even with that, we’re not far past the complexity of explaining en passant.  ↩
  2. Rolemaster is my go to example for this, but it accomplished this by virtue of producing a staggeringly HUGE amount of text to provide its vision of magic. Most other successes have either done a similar amount of work, or have done so by pursuing entirely different approaches to magic (such as Ars Magica).  ↩

11 thoughts on “The Importance of Spells

  1. Kevin Matheny

    I agree with you almost entirely. I would perhaps say that spells are the most essential part of D&D, rather than the most important.

    There have been other approaches to magic, but the core of how we approach magic in game terms is based on D&D’s spell lists. Much like M:tG and trading card games, or Dominion and deckbuilding games, the first mover has defined the way we think. I wonder what games would be like if D&D hadn’t had spell lists.

    The oldest instance I can recall of a game trying to go its own way was Chivalry & Sorcery with Basic Magick, with manipulation of elements, creation/destruction, shapes, and the like. But even that was alongside a spell list.

  2. Staffan Johansson

    One of the things I like best about D&D magic compared to many other games is the idiosyncracy of the spells. Many games use generic effects for their magic, like “spend X magic points to do X damage”, “spend X magic points to act as a skill at level X” or “spend X magic points to move weight Y at a speed of X-Y” or something like that. That’s fair if you want magic to be a sort of nebulous force that can be applied to do a bit of whatever – for example, magic in the Dresden Files is described in exactly that fashion (or at least that’s the protagonist’s approach to it), so it makes sense that it would work like that in the Dresden Files game.

    But D&D, mostly thanks to Gygax and the influence of Vance, has some really weird shit up its sleeve when it comes to magic (both spells and items). You have spells like Guards & Wards, which provides a bunch of fairly specific protective effects to a structure. You have Goodberry, which provides a significantly different method of healing than regular Cure Wounds. There’s Bigby’s Hand, which summons a large disembodied hand to aid you in various matters. And of course the Prismatic family of spells in all their weirdness, particularly the way you need to dismantle the Sphere and Wall step by step. Items also have a lot of weirdness: Apparatus of Kwalish, Bag of Beans, or Daern’s Instant Fortress are just a few of the examples.

    This all makes it feel like magic is this weird, wonderful, and poorly understood stuff, that gets pressed into weird shapes because it refuses to come in “convenient” forms.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Yeah, Magic items are a whole other angle of this that I consistently struggle with. It was my *favorite* section of the original DMG, but I have never since found the section as compelling. I genuinely dunno if that’s me getting old, or if there was a real change.

      1. Kevin Matheny

        That’s an excellent point. The magic items, for me, were even more compelling than the spell list when I first encountered D&D (in the form of the 1st ed DMG). As you pointed out about spells, the nature of describing the effects of these things gave the world itself form by describing what was possible.

        Both the spell lists and the magic items in later versions of D&D, and in other games, have paled in comparison to that first experience. I think that’s inevitable – we can’t have that first experience again.

  3. E.T.Smith

    This is a timely subject for me, since I’ve lately been putzing around with my Nth attempt at a D&D-alike (not a one has ever been completed). I usually run out of steam when I get to dealing with magic, because there only are two broad design paths to go, and both lead to unsatisfying ends. On one hand I could implement some sort of loosey-goosey improvisational system that, even if I dress it up with power costs and situational requirements, ends up just handing a “solve any problem” button to anyone playing a magic-user at least halfway inventively, invalidating any other role-structure designed in the game. Or I build a codified spell system, which will end up being at least 75% the same as D&D.

  4. Chris Klug

    I agree with you 100%. To me, this is why, when a world setting is created to work using the D&D rules, it *always* ends up feeling like a ‘D&D World.’ Some of the paint might be a different color, the rugs might be oriental instead of berger, but the kinds of stories you can tell in that world are D&D stories. That’s not a bad thing, either. As you imply above, how magic works is a fundamental definition of how the world (and world) works, and the forces that try to shift/change/manipulated that ‘working’ is where conflict and story come from. I have had a recent experience where my world — 30 years old now — works in a certain way, especially where magic is concerned. Sometimes, when i try to re-boot the campaign after some down time, I make the mistake — twice now — of saying ‘sure, I’ll run it with system ‘X’ in order to make finding players easier. It doesn’t work. Now, I could either just tough it out and wait for the right type of player willing to use a system like RuneQuest (BRP, etc) or just create a different world and embrace the fact that it works with a D&D spell system and ONLY that system.

  5. Jesse Cox

    Well, so much of the mechanics are tied up in that massive Gordian knot of a spell list. It’s not generalizable — any rubric sheds detail, because there’s always an exception. And if you play for years, an intuitive sense of the spell list (and magic item list) is a significant transferable skill.

    Everything else is either remarkably simple and completely ignores biology, or GM fiat.

    Which is to say, spells are one of the few examples of player political power in the whole system, so players who care do learn them.

  6. Blue

    And spell lists set so many expectations. Once you reach character level X you’ll be able to cure poison or disease. At Y you can raise the dead. At Z you can get one person to fly, at W you can teleport the whole party. It’s a framework of expectations that GMs need to consider when they build their adventures and plots.


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